Demon’s Souls is without a doubt one of the most vexing, frustrating, exhilarating, unique experiences that it has been my pleasure to play through this console generation. The tenacity of Japanese developer From Software and its publisher Atlus has resulted in the creation of a game that perfectly idolizes the design philosophies of the Japanese Role-Playing Game and retains the infamous staples that have led gamers to both attraction to and repulsion from the genre. Demon’s Souls also shows that when developers trust in the intelligence and faith of the player, they can provide extremely deep and rewarding experiences without compromising the vision of a game.
But make no mistake, Demon’s Souls is a brutal game and appears at first glance superficially unfair. This is a game that requires the player’s investment to meditate and consider his actions before continuing to progress. A player can make mistakes with dire consequences that are absolutely irreversible. During another game’s development, designer Peter Molyneux once described a potential scenario in his Fable 2 in which the consequence of the death of the player’s avatar would result in being continuously beaten by enemies and in becoming noticeably, physically deformed by the incident. Of course, this consequence tested poorly with gamers and players would undoubtedly have turned off their consoles to avoid such a negative effect. Demon’s Souls does not concede the integrity of its difficulty to assist the player. There are no such barriers to prevent building poorly designed characters. Thus, there is no allowance for second chances should the player make mistakes.
Though multiplayer character profiles can be created, there is one auto-save slot in Demon’s Souls per profile. The five worlds that comprise the core of the game are divided into four sections that are basically dungeons. As the player continues to defeat enemies, he can collect souls, which are converted into currency or experience points that can be traded in the Nexus, the major hub world and only haven in the game. However, to retain these souls and return to the Nexus, players must defeat the dungeon and its own unique boss. If the player should die, he will be required to replay the dungeon in search of his body to regain those souls. If the player should die before reaching his body, all souls collected will become lost and replaced with a new dead body.
Despite the fact that the player will be able to retain previously collected items after death, more often than not it will feel like progress has literally been lost because souls are lost. Not to mention that every boss fight is extraordinarily daunting. During my personal playthrough, I failed to defeat the second boss, the White Knight, only to realize that I overlooked my chance to upgrade my character before leaving the Nexus. Having no souls to trade for experience, I then proceeded to replay the game under a new profile. It had taken me over five attempts before I patiently, methodically, and finally defeated the first world’s second boss.
Demon’s Souls has become synonymous with hardcore difficulty since the Japanese import has reached American shores. But the challenge isn’t insurmountable as every enemy has a pattern and every enemy can be countered if the player is skillful enough. The combat is deceptively simple as it often relies on timing and only requires practice to block and parry enemies successfully. This is where grinding becomes a necessity not for merely for farming experience but for learning the techniques that lead to approaching an enemy successfully, becoming familiar with the environment, and, of course, the prospect of gaining some very attractive loot. It’s an almost Diablo-esque experience to replay dungeons, though I would not claim that Demon’s Souls mimics or plagiarizes Diablo in any way.
Apart from the combat, magic abilities, and item fusion there is also an environmental component to upgrading a character that provides even further depth. The player will be able to alter both the moral qualities of the world in such a way as to allow that player to access certain parts of the world and to alter his or hero own moral qualities as represented by the character’s alignment. By performing acts such as defeating NPCs that are marked with either a white or black aura, the player invariably begins creating a tendency to align him- or herself towards white or black. World tendency works in a similar fashion with these dichotomous alignments. By leaning heavily towards a tendency the player will be able to not only enter special areas in the world that match with his or her alignment but also gain access to special items and weapons. Another option to influence character tendency is to battle opposing tendency characters in player versus player. This option brings me to the online component of Demon’s Souls.
Immediately upon entering the game, the player is prompted to connect to a server by default. When exploring the game world, the player will see numerous notes written on the ground providing instructions, giving advice, or providing warnings to the player. Some of these notes are actually notes left by other players on the server; the player can also leave notes as well. While playing through Demon’s Souls, various ghosts that represent other players will be seen phasing in and out of the game. Eventually, the player will obtain various stones that will allow the player to summon an open invitation of up to two other players to join his party for online co-op or to open up a player-versus-player match.
However, there are drawbacks to doing so in either case. Players will not be able to gain the soul experience for defeating a boss that he has already defeated but can gain experience from the normal enemies defeated in the dungeon. This problem is only a minor one compared to the inability to invite a friend on the fly to jump in and play. If there is any sort of matchmaking in Demon’s Souls, it occurs outside the game space. Players must converse prior to and outside of the game to set up a time and location to meet in order to ensure that they can play co-op together. This limitation is the result of a massive oversight and one of the drawbacks connected to the Playstation Network in general. Another hindrance against the ease of online play is that characters can only team up with characters with a similar experience level. Though this is positive in creating a filter for connecting to the right people for co-op with strangers, but it can become an issue for friends that want to progress together.
And yet, even though the online functionality may seem archaic in comparison to the convenience of Xbox Live, Demon’s Souls provides an online experience that is rare not only for the PS3 but this generation of consoles in general. Not many console title can boast the kind of cooperative and player-versus-player freedom in the game, and no other game can provide a sense of community in its single player campaign through the ability to leave and rank notes by other players. It provides a sort of community experience to what “should be” a seemingly single player experience that does not interfere with the overall structure of the narrative.
The plot is a strange fantasy tale with reference to an inter-dimensional presence. This conceit is a concession to the online component of the game. I would not claim Demon’s Souls is one of the great gaming narratives of this year, but it is definitely one of the most impressive looking games of this year. It is wonderfully framed with a Medieval, gothic aesthetic that provides a spectral and haunting atmosphere for the game. Much of this can be attributed to the architecture in the game environment, its costuming, and even colors that anachronistically invoke Baroque painting within a medieval space. This is without a doubt one of the most gorgeous looking games on the PS3.
Demon’s Souls is a triumph of the JRPG genre, providing an experience (and difficulty) that is unmatchable in any other title this generation. It is also stubborn as it makes no concessions against its grinding and upgrade mechanics, which narrowly treads the line between the commitment needed to play an RPG as opposed to an MMORPG with a completion time at a minimum of 40 hours and a level cap at 712. Though the barrier to entry seems unfairly high, players that surrender themselves to the game will undoubtedly discover a vastly rewarding experience that only continues to give back. From Software has produced an uncompromising game that compels the player to invest and understand the game on its own terms and Atlus has shown once again they are one of the most fearless publishers in the industry today. To put it simply, Demon’s Souls is a great game.